In a follow up to my previous posts about the inside zone run and the outside zone run, next up is to take a quick look at some of the possibilities that extend from them in terms of play-action passing.
Now the first thing to address is that this is going to be but a brief look. Obviously, like any passing game, the number of different routes that can be run down field, the number of route combinations that can be put together and the number of formations from which to run such plays is pretty huge. Thus really we're just going to look at some of the more basic concepts and ideas which form the foundation upon which the grand house of a play-action passing game can be built.
The first thing to look at is the basic design of how many NFL teams put together their zone schemes, including the favoured formations. One of the preferred choices for running the outside zone is to have a full back offset to the weak side. This full back can cut off the backside defensive lineman, as demonstrated below. Please note that these diagrams are not necessarily to scale, and that drawing representative alignments in Powerpoint is anything but a precise art! Also, you can enlarge any of the pictures simply by clicking on them.
In reality that defensive tackle ("T") next to the center would be a little more to the right from our perspective, as would the defensive end ("E") on the tight end side, but I've found that just complicates the drawing process. Maybe one day I'll figure out a convenient way to diagram it all, but for now... tough.
What's of interest is that offset fullback, whose path is marked with the dotted line.
The reason for this is the potential that exists for slipping that guy out of the backside of the play. With the heavy run action to the right the entire front seven will be drawn across to stop the outside zone run. The "Will" linebacker gets pulled across and becomes more concerned with filling any potential cut back lane. Meanwhile we're left with a defensive end matched up against the fullback.
Now from a blocking perspective on a run play, that match up favours the defensive end. In all fairness the fullback should be considered to have done a good job if he can just delay the end for long enough to get the running back to the line of scrimmage. But when it comes to the play-pass, now the match up favours the offense. A 6 foot, 6 inch, 270lbs defensive end is not going to pivot on the spot and keep pace with a 5 foot 10, 230lbs fullback in the open field.
With the quarterback 'boot legging' or 'waggling' (depending on your preferred choice of terminology) away from the flow of the run, we can now create a situation where you have the quarterback running out towards a wide open space, with the fullback down field at about a 4-5 yard depth, plus whatever other routes the offensive coordinator has in place.
Let's put this up in a diagram so we know where we stand;
I've cut the line off at the center because we're not overly interested right now in what's taking place past that point. The only two things of note on that side would be the tight end running across the back of the linebackers to get open and the opposite side receiver running downfield to draw off the safety coverage.
What concerns us immediately is the dynamic between the quarterback and the fullback. They've now put the defensive end in a bind, because one man can't cover two players. If he tries to drop off and cover the fullback he leaves the quarterback free to set up and thrown downfield, or even to run it, using the fullback to throw a block on the end. If the end comes charging down after the QB then he leaves the quarterback with the option of a little dump off pass to the fullback, who can then turn up field and potentially turn a 5 yard gain into something much bigger.
It's certainly not an enviable position to find yourself in.
And that's the real advantage to throwing play-action off the outside zone. The amount of lateral movement by the defense required to cover the run leaves the backside wide open. Even a slower quarterback can gain perhaps 5-10 yards himself. Someone like a Michael Vick can bust that thing open for a huge gain. Or if the defense reacts well and starts to close in, the QB can take the little dump off pass to the fullback and get himself a few yards. On first down that sets you up in a nice and convertible short yardage situation. On third and short it gets you a first down. And in the red zone that small gain could be worth 6 points.
The only real way for the defense to compensate for this play-pass is to have the defensive end and the "Will" linebacker 'stay home', that is to play very cautiously and not pursue across the field when they see the outside zone action going away from them. This of course is precisely what the offense is looking for. Such caution only makes it easier to block the end and the linebacker when the offense legitimately runs the outside zone, or what your TV commentators will describe as "keeping the defense honest" (maybe a future title for a sister blog perhaps?).
And (I must stop starting sentences with 'And') while we're talking about red zone potential and bringing up the running ability of Mike Vick, two subjects that were combined into a post a while back, there is another version of this play-pass that's worth looking at because a number of NFL teams use it when they get down into those "1st and goal" situations, while others still will use it in the open field. It's certainly common enough to be worth taking a look at. Maybe Andy Reid could take some notes?
The basic difference in this next variation of the play is in who the offense uses to block the backside, and in the case of the play-pass, who it is that slides out of the back door. Basically what you do is to put a second tight end into the game as a replacement for the fullback, then line this guy up behind either the strongside offensive tackle or the original tight end. Many teams refer to this player as an 'H-back', for reasons I've never been entirely sure of, especially when the running back in most schemes is labelled as 'H' for halfback already.
Regardless, you line this second tight end up on the strong side and when the ball is snapped he now takes over the blocking responsibility of the fullback, running back across the formation to make the block on the backside defensive end. Or in the case of the play-pass, he fakes the block on the end (maybe gives him a shove, depending on how strong/brave your tight end is) and then runs for the open ground in the backside flat. Here's a rough look at it;
First of all, I accept that the defense probably wouldn't be quite so generous as to use the above front for their goal line/close to goal line setup, but just roll with it for now. The important point is that we have a tight end running clean out the back of the play.
The primary difference between this and the fullback, is that the tight end is usually a bit quicker and more often than not has better hands. That means he's more likely to run free from any backside defenders and if the ball is thrown to him, he's more likely to catch it, which is always a bonus. The secondary effect is that the path of the tight end/H-back can pull the "Sam" linebacker across a little, or at the very least cause him to hesitate, making it slightly easier for the starting tight end to get up and block him inside.
Another slight variation of this is to send the second tight end/H-back in motion prior to the snap, to line up behind the left tackle, where he is much better placed to get the block on the end or to sneak out the back door on the play-pass, though this negates somewhat the surprise effect of him coming across the back of the line. The positioning of this second tight end on the right side can also add a further variation to the outside zone, where instead of coming across the play he simply drives upfield, perhaps chipping the "Sam" backer on the way, and goes up to get the strong safety.
Finally, to finish we'll take a quick look at a play-pass by the Houston Texans from Sunday's game against the Titans, which ended with running back Arian Foster bagging a 78-yd catch and run. Here's the video of the play for those interested, and we start with the diagram below showing the pres-snap alignment of the offense and defense;
This diagram is as accurate as I could make it. With the Texans playing a heavy run set, the Titans naturally clamp down, especially on the strong side. They seem worried that the Texans are going to run to the strong side and thus have brought the numbers down heavily to defend it, but in actual fact they're going to get an outside zone to the left.
The split receiver on the left side will go hard downfield and come across the middle, with the tight end on the right side slipping out between the strong safety and the 'Mike' linebacker in order to head downfield and then break right to the sideline. The fullback is going to press towards the line initially, then he too is going to peel off to the right and try and slip out into the flat.
The defense starts by going with the zone run to the left, then as soon as they read pass they all start to flock back to the right in order to cover the various receivers headed in that direction. What they don't see is Foster coming up through the line and sneaking out to the left. As Schaub waggles out to the right he sees his receivers reasonably well covered, all that is except Foster. So he pulls up, turns and fires one out to the left.
For Foster it's a simple case of catch and run, cutting inside one would be tackler and then letting his speed do the rest. I've drawn up the final play here;
On a side note about the above play, I've noticed the Texans are really fond lately of these heavy sets, bringing an additional tight end into the game to replace one of the receivers. I'm not sure if they were doing this before the injury to Andre Johnson or not, but it's worked out well for them. They lead the league in rushing attempts which has led to the fourth most total rushing yards. They had two 100-yd rushers in the game against the Titans.
Which has sparked up a question I've long thought about; what if more teams used heavy, goal line style sets in the open field? This may strike people as me yearning for the old "three yards and a cloud of dust" mentality, but one thing I've noticed is the amount of times down by the goal line that a team will get their back through untouched and on his feet. Obviously in the end zone he has nowhere else to run, but in the open field he'd be clean through and off to the races. Interesting...
Well that's your lot for today. Tomorrow I'm planning to have a quick look at a group of players who I think are grossly under appreciated and have a huge impact on contemporary 3-4 defenses; the 3-4 defensive end.
See you tomorrow.